Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Is hyperlocal journalism dead? Or just a dumb name for a trend?

There's been much ado about the demise of Backfence. For the last two years, the site has been building online communities designed to reflect real-life local communities. Some call it citizen journalism, although in a post-mortem on the site, company co-founder Mark Potts said it was more about community discussion than journalism.

And how do you measure success of a site like Backfence? After two years, the company folded because it wasn't profitable. But that's only one way to evaluate a community based site.

While journalism is a profession, it's also a mission. Very few people get into journalism with the hopes of earning a huge paycheck. And the same can be said of bloggers. Few bloggers make money at all, let alone a salary. And hyperlocal sites like Backfence are built similarly. People don't contribute because they think doing so will let them quit their jobs. They contribute because they want to be engaged in a discussion about the issues affecting their lives.

Unfortunately, while that's fine and well if you have unlimited resources, it takes money to run an online community. And even if what you're trying to do is provide voices that aren't heard in the mainstream press, you're going to have a hard time beating the local papers, which are still a top web destination for many people.

If you can't beat them, you might want to try to join them. While larger papers and media organizations are starting to understand the benefits of building a user community base (brand loyalty, identification with their news product, sources for future stories, etc), not all news sites have the means to build out their own communities. Potts suggests that there were a variety of reasons Backfence didn't partner with local news organizations when it launched. But now, he says, that seems to be the way to go.

Does the failure of Backfence mean that hyperlocal journalism is dead? No. It just means that Backfence is dead. Hopefully as more and more people turn to online communities like Digg for their news, local institutions will see the need to build out their own communities or to partner with services like Backfence. And hopefully more people will become involved in online discussions not just about whether the new iPhone keyboard dooms the device to failure, but also about the proposed school district budget.

And hopefully they won't have to use a trendy name like "hyperlocal" to describe what most people just think of as the news.

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